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Conspicuous presumption

Anne Carlson of Common Cause found that her presence wasn't appreciated in City Hall's Flag Room when she set up a press conference to criticize the city's new ethics code.

So why, you ask, does a major Dallas law firm pay the mayor of Dallas $200,000 a year when the mayor himself concedes he does little or no legal work for them? What does the law firm get out of the deal?

OK, this is not exactly the riddle of the sphinx. An equally tough question might be, "Why is your dog so friendly around feeding time?"

On the other hand, the firm of Gardere & Wynne has never been especially forthcoming about the special sinecure it provides Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, so it's worth paying attention whenever we do get a little peek.

And this is a little peek.

On June 26, when Common Cause, the citizen lobby group, wanted to hold a press conference at City Hall, they were told at first that they were flat not going to be allowed to do it. Eventually they figured out a way to pull it off, but only by jumping through a whole bunch of tricky little bureaucratic hoops.

Common Cause wanted to hold a press conference in the ceremonial "Flag Room" outside the Dallas City Council chambers--a big empty space with a bunch of flags at one end and a towering glass wall looking out on downtown. You've seen it on TV a lot. Whenever there's a press conference to announce a big Chamber of Commerce deal, something about the Trinity River project, or anything involving the "Dallas Plan"--booster things--that's where they do it.

Common Cause wanted to use the room to say something un-boosterish. They wanted to hold a press conference to say that the mayor and the private, secretive "Dallas Citizens Council" had screwed up the new city ethics code by watering it down and pulling its teeth in order to protect bid'ness as usual.

"I called down to City Hall on Thursday," Anne Carlson of Common Cause told me. "We wanted to have the press conference the next Monday. We had people coming in from Austin. I got pushed around from office to office. Finally, a woman called me back and said we couldn't have the Flag Room because there was a meeting going on in the city council chamber."

I checked. The woman who spoke to Anne Carlson was right. That's the rule. If there's a meeting going on in the council chamber, somebody else can't use the Flag Room.

Carlson asked whether they could do it down in the City Hall lobby by the front door. Somebody else called back and said, no, there was an art exhibit up in the lobby.

Come again? You can't have a press conference near an art exhibit? Well, now, a rule is a rule, and I checked, and according to the rules the art exhibit amounts to one group using the lobby, so another group can't use the lobby at the same time. So there.

Eventually, Anne Carlson and her colleagues in Common Cause found a friend who knew his way around City Hall; the friend figured out that the rules were being stretched waaaay too tight; and Carlson was allowed to do her press conference during a break in the day when there actually was not a meeting going on in the adjacent council chambers.

I asked Carlson what had been the overall attitude of city staff toward her and Common Cause.

"Really condescending," she said. "It was kind of like people trying to be nice, but at the same time you know they're gritting their teeth."

Oh, I do know that sensation. It's called "Persona Non Grata at City Hall." That's why I sometimes look around for a nearby manager and then ask in a fraidy-cat voice, "Excuse me, but does your person out here on the desk bite?"

So here's the contrast: Let's say you're not Common Cause. Let's say you're more like Uncommon Cause. Superior Cause. Screw-You Cause. Let's say, for example, that you are Gardere & Wynne, LLP, and you pay the mayor $200,000 a year for doing nothing, and you have decided that you want to have a big dinner party for your summer law-school recruits in the Flag Room.

Well, I am just sorry, Mr. Mayor-in-your-pocket, but I checked the rules for that too, and you would not be able to do that. And before we start getting that look on our face and talking smarty-smarty, let me just read the rules to you. This was handed to me by Ms. Phedra Amarante, special-events manager for the city of Dallas.

Ahem. "Guidelines for reserving a special event room..." Blah-blah, blah-blah, here we are. Rule five: "Nonprofit civic, cultural, professional and educational organizations may use meeting or special event rooms as schedules permit. Use of these rooms shall not be granted for religious meetings or commercial purposes."

 

Pretty clear, eh? And she handed that right to me. Now, I must say, I did have a bit more difficulty persuading Ms. Amarante to let me see who has actually used the room in recent months. I asked whether I could look through the file or just see a list or whatever.

"You know better than that," she said. "I am not going to allow you to just come down here and rifle through our files."

She said I had to file a legal demand under the Texas Open Records Act to find out who has actually used the room. So I did that. It took a little time, but eventually she had to show me the files.

And what...what, may I ask, is this, sticking out of the stack of files like a big old sore thumb in a silk shirt-cuff with diamond-encrusted gold cufflinks and a soupçon of expensive cologne? Oh, my goodness. Here is a file saying that the mayor's law firm, Gardere & Wynne, held a big dinner party in the Flag Room on the evening of June 19 this year in order to entertain the firm's "summer associates."

What happened here? I pointed out rule No. 5 on her sheet to Ms. Amarante. Only nonprofits and civic groups. No for-profits. I am sure that if we ever described Gardere & Wynne as a nonprofit, they would sue us. All of the other groups in the files who used the Flag Room were nonprofits. So was this special treatment?

"No," Ms. Amarante said. "I don't feel that they got special treatment."

Uh...Then how come they got to do the dinner? You know, Rule-o five-o? "To my knowledge," Ms. Amarante said, "there has been no preferential treatment."

I'm not getting it. "Would it be possible," I asked, "for the Dallas Observer to have a dinner party in the Flag Room for its 'summer associates?'"

She shook her head no.

No? No? That is just so unfair! How come the Dallas Observer can't do it if Gardere & Wynne can? My feelings are about to be distinctly hurt.

I asked Steve Good, the managing partner at Gardere, what he thought about it. He said, "We don't know what the rules are about who can use the room. I don't really know what I can add to your perspective on this except to refer you to the mayor's office."

Oh, sure. You might as well refer me to the tooth fairy. I had already called the mayor's office, of course, and told his assistant about my concerns. But I don't get a lot of call-backs from that particular venue except to swear at me and call me bad names.

I do know, from published accounts and from talking to Steve Good, that Gardere, like all the big law firms in the country, is engaged in ferocious competition for new recruits from the top law schools. Good confirmed that Gardere is paying first-year lawyers, fresh out of school, about $115,000 a year, as are all the other big Dallas firms.

At most firms, in exchange for spending five to six weeks at a law firm as a summer intern, the summer associates are paid about $1,500 a week. Good says he doesn't know exactly what his firm pays them, but it's probably in that range.

The money alone isn't enough to snag the best ones or keep them happy after they're snagged. Like most big firms, Gardere offers little kissy-face perks as well. Some firms provide free Starbucks coffee, for example. Gardere gives baby lawyers a special "business development" expense account and takes them all out to lunch once a week.

Whole articles are written in the legal press on how to keep Gen X lawyers happy by letting them dress down and speaking to them often about their feelings. (No way, no amount of money, no amount of Starbucks coffee, nothing on earth could induce me to take the job of being the guy who has to go talk to the young lawyers about their feelings. Just shoot me.)

But articles also are written by the Gen X lawyers themselves on what to look for when they do these summer associate gigs. Couched in a lot of high-flown youth-accented language about "the corporate culture," the inner message is: Look around and see how well they're wired so you can tell how much moolah you can make.

Gardere & Wynne, in fact, is very wired. You and I read about corruption probes at DISD, for example, and all the problems the district has had with contractors such as Honeywell. So how did that one come out? You and I won't ever really know, because Gardere & Wynne got in there, representing the school district, and did a deal. The district received a reported $2 million; it's all secret; and there's no more talk of a corruption probe in that particular area.

 

Among the specialties Gardere advertises on the Web are government procurement contracts and allegations of corruption. Those are areas of law at least one layer, maybe more, beneath the public surface of politics. To do that kind of law on a big scale and make money at it, you have to be really wired politically--so wired that the wires don't show.

So how do you demonstrate all of that to those Gen X baby lawyers who are bouncing up and down in their seats with caffeine-induced attention deficit disorder, talking about cars, craning around trying to see how much money they can make, and waiting for someone to come ask them about their feelings?

You do the dinner in the Flag Room at City Hall, where it's illegal for you to do it. You have the mayor, a partner in your firm, come give the babies a funny speech. You show them the skyline by night right outside the window. And you tell them: "We own this lemonade stand."

I hate to say it, because it's only going to help them, but I think they do. They do own City Hall. And that's easily worth $200,000 a year for one mayor. In fact, percentage-wise, the mayor's not getting all that much more than the babies, is he? Maybe we should feel insulted for him.

I want somebody to come talk to me about my feelings on this right now!


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